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Are Conservatives Merely Leading a ‘Ghost Dance’?

A new volume surveys an increasingly radical intellectual landscape.

Credit: Photo by Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The Total State: How Liberal Democracies Become Tyrannies, Auron MacIntyre, Regnery, 208 pages

Elite theory is having its moment on the right. 


In the aftermath of the Trump presidency, and following the failure of Brexit, it has become increasingly apparent to conservatives across the West that populism and electoral politics alone are ineffectual means for resisting or actively pushing back against progressivism. As such, many are seeking out old answers to the problems facing the right today, oftentimes drawing on disparate sources ranging from counterrevolutionaries such as Joseph de Maistre, to the Italian Elite Theorists, to controversial thinkers such as Carl Schmitt.

In his book The Total State, Auron MacIntyre gives a brief and effectual summary of this conservative resourcement, set against the backdrop of the events of 2020 and the author’s development from a Straussian/neoconservative view of the world into a more authentically conservative frame. 

MacIntyre’s book tracks contemporary trends concerning managerialism, the increasing encroachment of politics into previously apolitical spheres, and the failure of the constitution to protect liberty with the writings of various past thinkers, who either saw the development of the same trends we see today or predicted them. MacIntyre uses Schmitt’s Concept of the Political to explain how classical liberalism destroys the bonds of society under the guise of trying to remove the friend/enemy distinction and the various tribal identities of people, as well as Schmitt’s Political Theology to show the inability of constitutionalism to remove questions of sovereignty from debate. MacIntyre is particularly effective in showing the inherent totalitarian tendencies within liberal democracy, as it transforms previously neutral domains (such as church, family, culture, or education) into objects of public debate thus facilitating an encroachment of the state further and further into public life.

The Total State is also deliberately limited in scope. MacIntyre does not discuss political policy or contemporary issues, limiting himself to demonstrating the chimerical and totalitarian nature of the modern liberal state. This is in many ways beneficial—after all, it would be out of place for MacIntyre to shift from a description of the origin of managerialism to a synopsis of the current Russo-Ukrainian War or the subject of NATO enlargement. 

The final chapter of the book is its most intriguing. In it, MacIntyre likens modern conservative constitutionalism, particularly the notion of a “Convention of the States,” to a Lakota Ghost Dance, because of its futile attempt to summon the spirit of something essentially dead while appearing threatening enough to trigger a response. Much as the Ghost Dance at Wounded Knee was interpreted by U.S. soldiers present as an aggressive military action (precipitating a very one-sided battle), MacIntyre believes that constitutionalism will merely trigger a leftist crackdown while achieving nothing. 


MacIntyre argues that no change in constitutional interpretation or wording can address either de Maistre’s Generative Principle of Political Constitutions, the control of left-wing elites over nominally apolitical institutions, or the tendency of democratic politics to become all-consuming and totalitarian. MacIntyre holds e strategy of neoconservative-esque former liberals trying to return to an earlier iteration of liberalism as both futile and counterproductive. At the same time, he also condemns Caesarism, pointing out that a left-wing Caesar, such as Franklin Delano Roosevelt, would be more likely than a conservative given current elite ideological dispositions. 

Instead, MacIntyre hopes and predicts the current regime will continue to reveal itself to have no clothes, and that authority will thus be returned to the local level as citizens look more to their governors than to Washington for competency, all while states gain greater confidence to nullify or outright ignore federal actions. MacIntyre does not view this as a perfect solution, as, after all, blue states will become even more liberal, but it will allow conservatives to promote a positive vision, and healthy policy, in their states and localities.

MacIntyre’s vision, though convincing at first glance, neglects the effects of immigration on state politics. Virginia, a former red state, now leans blue due to immigration. Likewise, though Missouri is still a red state, my time living in St. Louis highlighted the federal government’s ability to drop random groups of “refugees” in various parts of the country. 

It is clear that the current plan of the left is, in the words of Bertolt Brecht, to simply “dissolve the people and elect another.” It is conceivable that these groups of immigrants, having the same ability to vote as America’s historical population, are being placed within Missouri to eventually turn it into a swing state or a reliably blue one. Thus, without further immigration restrictionism at the federal level, MacIntyre’s plan for re-localization is doomed.

Though he fails to radically shift the intellectual needle forward with his salvo, MacIntyre’s The Total State should be viewed as a timely primer and thorough introduction to elite theory, the intellectuals who orbit the space, and post-liberal politics at large, a role in which it succeeds greatly. Perhaps it would be a good gift for a Fox-News-watching relative who has never heard of de Maistre or Schmitt.